Push-ups are one of the first exercises to come to mind when we think about bodyweight training for our chest, shoulders, and arms.
It doesn’t get any more basic than putting your hands on the ground and pushing your body up.
As soon as you start the movement, you can tell whether or not your upper body strength is up to par or if you need to overcome any weaknesses. But despite the simple nature of the push-up, there is much more benefit to doing this exercise properly than from just doing as many repetitions as you can.
Besides the obvious direct work on your upper body muscles, the simple push-up is a foundational exercise upon which you can build a great number of bodyweight skills, such as bent arm stands, crow holds, and elbow levers.
In this article we’ll teach you everything you need to know about the push-up – how to do it correctly and how to progress to more advanced variations when you are ready to take it up a few notches in intensity.
The Push-Up From Head to Toe
A common question with the push-up is,
Which muscles does this work exactly?
To a lot of people this might seem like a silly question to ask, but we should address it, because it’s very common.
If you do push-ups correctly, pretty much all of your muscles are working! Your arms, shoulders, and chest are, of course, worked very hard in push-ups. But you are also using your abdominal and back muscles, and when you use the form we recommend below, even the lower body is involved.
With the right approach, you can definitely make the push-up a full body exercise.
For our proper push-up technique, let’s start from the hand positioning and work our way up (or down, as the case may be) from there.
Push-Up Hand Position
Ideally, you’ll want your fingers facing forward, but for some people with wrist issues, they’ll do better with the fingers angled out to the sides a bit. This is fine, and a good way to modify the position if you have wrist problems.
Better still is to properly strengthen and stretch your wrists before possibly developing wrist problems. Click here for a comprehensive wrist program.
For the correct width, place your hands up by your shoulders, splay your thumbs out to the sides, with the tip of your thumbs just touching your shoulders. You may have to adjust for comfort, but this not-so-narrow and not-so-wide spacing is right where you want to be.
There are so many different variations of the push-up, from your knuckles, the back of your wrists, fingers facing backward, “diamonds,” “tigers,” etc. All of them have their specific uses and benefits, but you’ll do best to begin with the basic push-up we describe here, master it, then move on as you see fit.
Doing fancy push-ups may look cool, but the entire point is to get stronger, so start with the basic technique.
Push-Up Elbow Position
Regardless of where the fingers point, I recommend making sure that your elbow is in alignment with your middle finger. There should be a straight line from the point of the elbow right through that finger.
With this alignment, the elbows are tucked in close to your sides.
When you practice this position you’ll notice you will be actively pulling your elbows in and rotating the front of your elbows (the “elbow pits”) forward to keep this proper alignment. This action isn’t just at the wrists and elbows but comes from the whole arm, as the rotation actually involves your shoulder rotator cuff muscles.
Simply aligning your joints correctly puts you into a stronger position and improves your shoulder strength and health.
This will, of course, make the push-up more difficult to do than if you were lax in your technique. But making it difficult in the beginning means getting stronger and better than you would otherwise.
Push-Up Shoulder Position
Now we’ll take a look at your shoulder position.
When you first start, you want your forearms and upper arms to be in a nice, vertical line, with your shoulders right above your wrists. When you do the actual push-up movement, you want to move straight up and down, without pushing your body backward toward your heels.
This requires good discipline as you start to fatigue.
Don’t worry about getting as many repetitions as possible, but instead, focus on your form and technique.
When your strength improves, you can play with shifting your shoulders forward a bit, so they are in front of your hands. This forward lean is a great way to work on the positioning needed to progress toward skills such as the planche and press handstand.
And this all begins from a simple push-up!
Push-Up Head Position
The head position for the push-up is quite simple, but it can take some concentration to keep it in line.
What we want is a neutral head position, with the chin tucked in – not down – slightly. This position will create a nice, straight line from the crown of your head, all the way down to your heels (as you’ll see in the next section).
You’ll need to concentrate on keeping your head in this neutral position, as the tendency is to let the chin jut forward as you lower yourself. We don’t want this to happen.
Push-Up Lower Body Position
As mentioned previously, the push-up is not just an exercise for the upper body.
When done correctly, the hips and lower body will be incorporated to develop coordinated strength throughout your body.
Keep your butt squeezed tight, lock your knees out firmly, and pull your legs together as tightly as you can. It should feel as if your body is a solid piece from head to toe.
That’s the proper structure for a push-up, and the one that will give you the most benefit for your time spent on this exercise.
The Push-Up in Motion
Now that you have an understanding of the alignments and structure of a good push-up, you are all set to put it into motion.
Take a look at this video for a full explanation of this proper form in action:
Remember that one of the keys to a proper push-up is keeping your body tight and solid.
If you maintain your posture and tightness, then as you push and lower down, you’ll have no choice but to do the push-up correctly.
Push straight up and down, while keeping your lower body tight so that your whole body moves together in one line. Your shoulders, back, and hips should lower and raise together all at once, rather than one part leading the others.
What if I can’t even do one push-up?
Start on your knees. If you can’t do that, then start on your knees with your hands up on a stool or chair. And if you can’t do that, head to a countertop or have a wall in front of you, and work at an angle from your toes.
Keep your mind on your form, keep working on the exercise, and you will get stronger and work your way down to the ground for a full push-up.
What if my elbows/shoulders/wrists click/pop/snap when I do a push-up?
If you have any pain while doing push-ups, then you’ll need to stop and ask a qualified person to help you.
If you have clicks and pops that aren’t painful, then take another close look at your technique and see if that helps. It may not, but as long as you continue to be pain free, then you can continue on. You may need to reduce the range of motion in the exercise, but feel free to continue with a modified range of motion as needed.
Oftentimes, when you get stronger, these joint noises decrease.
How many push-ups should I do?
As many as you can with good form. I don’t mean go to failure and exhaustion with every set, nor do I mean that you should never push yourself and always stop short of your best effort.
Instead, what I do mean is that you should begin and end with good form, and expend as much of your energy and effort within that goal.
I don’t care if you can do 50 push-ups if they’re sloppy. I’d much rather you be able to do 5 solid push-ups, with great effort and struggle on the fifth rep. Just do as many as you can while keeping your elbows in, your shoulders in the right position, and your lower body tight and strong.
I’m not a fan of high numbers of repetitions anyway. A solid 3 sets of 15 pushups with impeccable form means you are ready to move on to harder work. Begin with lower repetitions in your sets and concentrate on your technique, then gradually add repetitions on each set.
This is a great way to progress and build up your form and tolerance for more work.
Can I do these everyday?
Yes. Again, as long as your form stays intact, you can do these as often as you like.
Why does it seem like every article on fitness features a picture of a woman doing push-ups with terrible form?
I have no idea, but I’m glad you noticed. Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard.
Moving Beyond the Basics to Advanced Push-Up Variations
Ready for handstand push-ups, plyometric presses, and planches?
Too bad – you’re almost certainly not ready for those, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the push-up more difficult with some modifications.
It may not look as sexy as some variations, but my favorite step up from the basic push-up is the Hollow Body Plank Push-up. This exercise places an even greater emphasis on core strength and stability.
The Hollow Body position is a classic gymnastic exercise that has been around for decades, for use in developing the abdominal strength to maintain proper form and alignment in skills for the highest gymnastic scoring.
Don’t worry, we aren’t using this position to score points in our workout, but instead, to help develop strength.
You’ll usually see the hollow body position practiced on the back, but today I’ll show you how to do this in the top of a push-up position, otherwise known as a “plank.”
Hollow Body Plank
The Hollow Body Plank is a great hold for building up that hollow body strength. In this video, I’ll show you what this hold is all about:
From the top of push-up (plank) position:
- Tuck your head slightly.
- Round out your shoulders and lift your spine up to the ceiling.
- Flatten out your low back.
- Squeeze your hips and legs and keep your heels together.
And that’s the Hollow Body Plank.
Just like you did when you learned to do push-ups correctly, take your time to work on the details of the Hollow Body Plank and commit those structural keys to memory.
Begin with 10-second holds in this position, and gradually increase your time to 3 sets of 30 seconds. You can work on holding it for up to a minute (or more), but instead of spending time working on holding it longer, go ahead and put it into motion as I describe below.
Hollow Body Plank Push-Up
As you continue to work on your Hollow Body Plank Holds, you can set these in motion and work on this push-up variation. The primary difficulty here is in maintaining the position, both as you move in the push-up and as you get tired and fatigued.
Your Hollow Body Plank structure is the key to this exercise, and it doesn’t do you any good to bang out more push-up repetitions when you lose this positioning. You’d be better off taking a break and then trying again later.
Don’t sacrifice form for more reps.
In this video, I’ll demonstrate the Hollow Body Plank Push-Up in motion:
From the Hollow Body Plank position:
- Maintain a tight Hollow Body Plank position as you descend to the floor.
- Keep everything locked in solid.
- From here, lower down as far as you can and push your body straight up.
- Keep your elbows in close throughout the exercise.
That’s the hollow body plank push-up.
How Push-Ups Help You Build a Strong and Solid Body
Our emphasis on proper form, body alignment, and “tightness” in the push-up transfers to all of the upper body push and pressing skills you’ll want to play with down the line.
For handbalancing, building strong wrists and arms and a solid core and lower body, while learning to keep everything in proper alignment with your shoulders, makes it so much easier to find your balance. Any weak link in this structure has to be strengthened, or you will hit a stall in your progress.
It’s much better to start off the right way, than to backpedal and try to fix things later.
Other dynamic skills, such as cartwheels, handsprings, and other upper body “locomotive” movements, rely on upper body strength as a base for movement.
Basic push-ups and the hollow body plank push-ups, begin training this full body integration right away, so that you can focus on learning the new movements rather than being limited by a lack of strength and ability from having a poor foundation.
Basic Push-Ups are the Foundation of All Inverted and Pressing Movements
Push-ups are a prime example of “back to the basics” training.
If you are just starting out with (or returning to) exercise, these basic and fundamental movements should provide the bulk of your training. They provide benefits beyond the obvious muscle work, laying a foundation for more advanced skills down the line.
With that said, I am not recommending doing the same exercises for the rest of your life!
Not at all.
It’s simply that if you begin to train correctly and focus on the important things, then you’ll improve much faster and have the freedom to play and explore much sooner than if you had tried to shortcut the process.
Keep practicing the push-up with an emphasis on form and technique, and you’ll set the stage for continuous progress.
Push-ups are fantastic for building a strong foundation for more advanced moves in the future. To take them further, we recommend using parallettes to gain leverage and elevation for more complete variety of pressing skills.